T.I. vs Michael Eric Dyson (2008)
An excerpt of this piece was originally posted on TSS–I think this was my first post for them–but the blog that housed the entire piece disappeared. I’m posting this here so the full text still exists somewhere online.
T.I. vs Michael Eric Dyson
originally posted 7/3/08
“The last great debate I had was with Michael Eric Dyson”-Killer Mike, That’s Life
“I know you’re going through it, know I’m going through it too”-T.I., A Better Day
Last weekend I was lucky enough to witness, in the span of about 20 hours, two of Black America’s foremost public leaders address their constituents live and in person.
Friday night, at the University of Missouri-St Louis, Michael Eric Dyson spoke at the Black Radical Congress’ 10th Anniversary opening ceremony, to a crowd, presumably mostly Black radicals or at least inclined towards Dyson’s way of thinking, who had paid to see him speak. He addressed Barack Obama’s candidacy and its effects with eloquence, charisma, and an excellent balance of academic and street talk.
The next day, karma paid off nicely: as a result of my volunteering at the Circuit Court 22 Juvenile Detention Center, I was lucky enough to be one of the few non-”residents” to hear Clifford Harris, better known as T.I., address a sea of red, blue, green, yellow and orange sweatsuits there. While he was there to fulfill his community service requirement as part of his sentencing on gun charges, his 45 minute speech had every bit of the swagger, intelligence, heart and wittiness (not to mention his unbelievably thick-in-person accent) he displays in his music.
His influence and impact on the kids was evident from before he even arrived. While waiting for him to traverse security and make his way to the cafeteria, the incarcerated youth sat more quietly and appropriately than I have ever seen them before—and any door creak or footstep in the hallway was greeted by 70 heads quickly swiveling towards the door.
Both men spoke of being realistic when choosing your methods in life. Dyson discussed the practicality of Obama’s potential presidency as well as the role from which Black radicals can affect the most change, while T.I. questioned how likely it was for the young men in the room to actually make a living (and a life) out of doing the wrong thing.
“Most cats that’s livin like that is rottin in prison and those not locked wish they made better decisions”-NYOil, F***ing Dumba**
He started by making it very clear that he wanted the youth to differentiate between real life and entertainment—and the difference between the messages in his records, and what he was about to say. Whether speaking as T.I., T.I.P., or Cliff Harris, his authority in the room was unquestioned. The youth knew that T.I. grew up similar to them, and that he had been locked up many times–that he could relate to them in a way that many of the speakers who visit them never could.
“There ain’t probably nothing that any of you in this room have done that I ain’t did. Well, it might be a few of you who mighta done one or two things I ain’t done, but it’s not much.”-T.I.
His focus for much of his time was instructing the youth on how to “get money”, but along the way he slipped in diverse lessons on listening to your elders, on weighing risk and reward, on hope, hard work and on the power we all possess over our destinies.
It was an ingenious way to draw in an audience weaned on the flashy opulence of Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, and …T.I…. keeping their attention while imparting some of his accumulated wisdom along the way. Speaking in terms that every one of the youth could relate to, he equated the power structure’s unwillingness to help them succeed to their own admission that in a dice game, they wouldn’t offer money to an inexperienced player who hadn’t claimed money he’d won—shades of The Wire’s Mr. Prezbelewski.
He made very clear that noone should expect success and money to come strictly by doing what one wants to do all the time—the key is to “do what you don’t want to do so well that noone can tell you don’t want to do it”. His example—acting on rollerskates in ATL: “Do I look like a skater to you? Okay then. When you saw the movie I sure looked like I was having fun, right?”
“I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them, so I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win win”-Jay-Z, Moment of Clarity
In the JC Penney auditorium, Dyson was heard by a quarter-capacity crowd that paid rapt attention to every word. He also recognized the need to step out of one’s comfort zone in order to make meaningful change, but focused more on the end result than the methods, allowing that was okay to “Do what you gotta do to get where you gotta get but don’t forget to do what you came to do when you get there.”
He expressed little faith that Obama would do so, but at the same time recognizes and appreciates the effects of his candidacy—specifically opening doors for other Black politicians and providing a role model for Black youth. He believes Obama as President will be able to do very little to change things at the federal level, but thinks that as a result of his success meaningful gains can be made locally by politicians who gain legitimacy through an elected Black president. Just as significantly, he articulated excitement about the fundamental change in Black children’s psyches, just knowing that a Black man had been elected President of the United States.
“If you say something I can’t understand, it is a failure of your education, not mine.”-Jesse Jackson
Dyson expressed himself sometimes with strings of higher-education vocabulary, and sometimes in slang that would seem more at place on a street corner or in a barbershop. The juxtaposition of his styles speaks to his attempt to reach a wider audience than your average academic, and would have boded well had he switched roles with T.I.—speaking to seventy incarcerated Black youth with no idea of who Dyson was instead of a similar number of paid attendees who were there to hear what one of America’s foremost Black social commentators had to say—that is to say, they were already “on the team”.
It raises an interesting point that Tef Poe and I were discussing earlier about the effectiveness of the activist hip hop community—so often “conscious” rappers and events speak only to the relatively small number of fans of “conscious rap” and, though their music may in many ways educate and motivate, this “preaching to the choir” effect leaves the masses, necessary to any revolution, untouched. To this end, we decided that despite Dyson’s great speech, his credentials, and his reputation as a radical, it was Cliff Harris who had the more revolutionary effect on his audience.